In the late 1960s, I left for England to check out the motorcycling scene there. I had won Koman’s respect and admiration for the rapidity with which I had evolved into a skilful rider. He called me a “natural”, and that made me very happy. After we had completed a really long blast down south from Hyderabad to Kanyakumari – Koman would mock grip the handlebars while I rode – he decided that I was now ready for sterner but more exciting tests.
I was in two minds initially, but finally succumbed to Koman’s unceasing insistence and the promise of a world with motorcycles more powerful, faster and more beautiful than any I’d ridden before. Besides, as Koman said, who would have missed me in Kollengode anyway.
England was a revelation. What a summer that was. The Beatles. Flower power. And thousands of magnificent motorcycles glinting in the golden sun. And the tone and timbre of their exhaust notes – rorty, sibilant, gravelly, growly, snarly, and gloriously raw and unapologetically loud. Brough Superiors, Triumph Speed Twins, Tigers, Thunderbirds and T120 Bonnevilles, Velocette Venoms, cafe racers of all kinds, Ducatis, Gileras, and even a 1950 Norton Manx G50.
I made my pilgrimages in England. I first went to Triumph’s facility in Coventry and then to Birmingham, where the factories of BSA and Velocette were located, and after checking out Royal Enfield’s plant at Redditch, I landed in Wolverhampton, where I mourned the closure of that great marque Sunbeam. Then I started homing in on my targets.
The first motorcycle I rode in Britain was an Ariel Red Hunter, borrowed, without permission, of course, from a neat little home in Tunbridge Wells.
For obvious reasons, I always rode at night and rode fast – it was tough, even in 1960s’ England, to ride unnoticed – and I had to jettison way more machines than I swung a leg over. A Matchless Silver Streak (beautiful close-ratio gearbox!), near Hastings; an unbelievably smooth Velocette Venom, along the Antrim Coast; a Panther Model 100, near Inverness; and a BSA Rocket Goldstar, near Tenterden, were some of the other magnificent motorcycles that provided me with intense rushes of joy.
But my eagerness to ride almost got me arrested. After my nineteenth jaunt, on a smooth but bulky Ariel Square Four, whose progress was frequently impeded by overheating problems, I felt like having a go at the Isle of Man circuit. I thought I’d travel to the island, filch a nice Norton International, or a Triton, from one of the kids out there, and do a quick lap on that hallowed street circuit, but a news item in the Daily Mirror dissuaded me from embarking on that adventure.
The report, headlined “Mysterious but honourable motorcycle thief on the prowl”, spoke about a rider who mooched fast motorcycles after sundown, rode them hard, and mostly left them unblemished by the side of the road, often not too far from where they had been stolen. Over the last two months, the mysterious rider, the report said, had struck in many places as far afield as Sunderland and Brighton.
A pattern had emerged after the police in different counties spoke with each other, and the consensus, arrived at after observing the worn-out foot pegs and scuffed tyres, was that the man they were looking for was a highly skilled motorcyclist with a fine taste in motorcycles. A police official from London said that it was an “exceedingly queer case, but we have a few leads and we should be able to track him down”.
I felt chuffed when I chanced upon the report, but I also saw it as a sign to lie low for a bit, at least in England. So I travelled to Munich to visit BMW’s motorcycle factory, and a day later, crossed over to Italy where I couldn’t keep my hands off some more motorbikes, among them a Ducati 250 Mach1 – fast, stylish and very uncompromising – a Gilera Saturno and a brutish Moto Guzzi V7 750 Speciale, which had these slanting cylinder heads peeping out of its frame. The ride on the Speciale marked the end of my first proper trip abroad.
I considered going to Japan and the United States but didn’t feel particularly excited at the thought of riding Harley-Davidsons, or any of the new Hondas or Kawasakis. I could do all of that later, I told myself, and, nudged by sudden pangs of homesickness, headed back home.
On reaching Kollengode, I immediately travelled with Gopi to Palakkad. We met Koman there and the two friends finished two bottles of Cutty Sark whisky, as I enthralled them at the Fort Maidan late into the night narrating tales of my trysts with all those exotic machines.
Over the years, I have visited many countries in search of interesting motorcycles and ridden a million mooched miles on all sorts of machines. Each of these adventures helped Koman vicariously live the thrill of riding motorcycles he had never had the opportunity to ride.
But there is a story that was better than all my stories. It is about the Velocette Venom Thruxton HT, and the man who narrated it to us, on a September night, was Kadar.
Excerpted with permission from The God Who Loved Motorbikes, Murali K Menon, Juggernaut.
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